Historical Cultural Context
Preparing the Way
Unlike Matthew and Luke, Mark reports no genealogy for Jesus, yet he accomplishes the same thing they do: establishing Jesus’ honorable status and authority.
Son of God
The word commonly translated “gospel” in Mk 1:1 (“the beginning of the gospel of Jesus the Messiah”) is more fittingly translated “proclamation.”
Ancient Mediterranean people were familiar with proclamations. They were generally made on behalf of or about rulers (e.g., announcing the birth of a new ruler, reporting a recent military victory by the ruler). Mediterranean people would immediately wonder: who is this Jesus, and by what right does he make proclamations?
If this person is simply Jesus of Nazareth in Galilee (Mk 1:9), he would have little claim to honor. Recall Nathanael’s incredulous question: “Can anything honorable come out of Nazareth?” (Jn 1:46). A village artisan has no authority to make proclamations.
Mark has a ready answer: Jesus is Son of God. This statement announces Jesus’ status, the basis of his acquired honor by reason of which he can speak and act on behalf of God.
The Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation (no. 12) urges all who interpret the Bible to “investigate what the sacred writer intended to express and actually expressed.” Mark actually expressed the phrase “Son of God.” What did he intend to express?
In Hebrew and other Semitic languages, the phrase “son of so-and-so” means “having the qualities of so-and-so.” The phrase “son of man” means having the qualities of a man or person, hence in a word it means “human.”
The ancients understood thunder as the voice of God (see Ps 29:3-9), hence “sons of thunder” describes “those who echo the voice of God” (see Mk 3:17).
A son of God is one who has “the quality or qualities of God,” hence one who is divine or divine-like. This is more than sufficient justification for Jesus’ behavior as a proclaimer.
And who is this person who presumes to narrate the story of this extraordinary Jesus? What do we know about him? The gospel does not identify its author, but tradition (since Papias) has suggested a certain “Mark,” companion of Peter in Rome (1 Pet 5:13). The belief is that Peter or his recollections stand behind this gospel no matter who “Mark” really is.
From a cultural perspective, that would be beside the point. Whatever his identity, this author presents an honorable personal status as strong as Jesus’ status. In the second verse, the evangelist demonstrates ability to quote Scripture creatively. While citing explicitly only Isaiah, he has also included Malachi, demonstrating not only familiarity with the sacred traditions but creative ability to reshape them. Such skill was immediately recognized, highly regarded, and admired.
John the Baptizer
The third honorable figure to appear in this prologue is dressed like Elijah (Is 40:6; see 1 Kgs 1:8), preaches reform, and announces the advent of the Messiah. Yet for all his boldness, the Baptizer displays the appropriate and expected cultural humility. He describes the coming one as “more powerful than me” and declares himself “not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals” (Is 40:7). An honorable person never presumes to usurp the honor of another.
As a preacher, John is a smashing success. He addresses head on the day-to-day concerns of his predominantly peasant audience. The theme of John’s preaching was “remission of debts” (translated “forgiveness of sins”). Jesus echoed this in the Lord’s Prayer: “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors” (Mt 6:12; Lk 11:4).
Peasants from the Judean countryside were deeply in debt.
That honorable preachers like John and Jesus would proclaim remission of debts is good news. Advent is an opportune time for all Christians to address the burning issues of life courageously.
John J. Pilch
John J. Pilch is a biblical scholar and facilitator of parish renewals.
Liturgical Press has published fourteen books by Pilch exploring the cultural world of the Bible
**From Saint Louis University